Life Ain’t Bad Underground

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Mass-transit isn’t for everyone. A lot of drivers enjoy the privacy and comfort of their own vehicle on the morning commute. But for millions of commuters, subways, trains and buses are the only way to travel. People are linked to this network of thrills and chills, a pulsing nexus under cities all over the world.

The subway is one of the most exciting places on Earth. We make a conscious effort to climb underground at each station,  transcending from the surface world to something deep and detached. Riders move in distinct patterns on the stairs and escalators. They hurry along like schools of fish. The motions are imprinted on us. When the first subway train arrives at the platform, it drives  the air from the tunnel and into the faces of waiting passengers. . . the lively pressure from an artificial artery that never stops. When the train doors slide open, capacity can be filled in seconds. To sample the demographics from a single car is to view a part of American culture. All ethnic backgrounds, all ages. There are businesspeople and students, kids and teens, chatty friends, panhandlers and sleepers. Many riders play their iPods to drown out the constant roar of the subway, only to agitate other riders. We have a hard time asking strangers to turn down the volume. Courtesy often seems to be a fading trend within the belly of this urban dragon.

Points not crossed by subways are reached by the omnipresent bus. They have evolved from the trolleys of old, first sliding under catenary cables, then switching to diesel, and lately to natural gas or electric drive. It takes a lot of guts for a transit driver to wedge such vehicles into traffic. Some operators  do it with finesse. The variety of passengers is the same here as on the subway, but we are more likely to experience a higher frequency in braking and maneuvers. The bus is a welcome sight on a cold and dreary night. The bus is usually air-conditioned on a hot summer day. You pay your fare and say hello to the driver as you climb aboard, a kind word or two for the driver who can take you safely across town.

Commuter rail takes people from distant parts of the state to the city every day. Many of these trains share the same gauge tracks with freight and Amtrak and can move between 30 and 125 miles-per-hour. They are a convenient option for those where driving is not an option, although fare pricing for monthly passes has gone up in recent years. However, the scene of gridlock on a street from a passing train produces the same refreshing thought in every rider:  I’m awfully glad not to be driving today.

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